David Copperfield

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David Copperfield
Copperfield cover serial.jpg
Cover, first serial edition of 1849
Author Charles Dickens
Original titleThe Personal History, Adventures,
Experience and Observation
of David Copperfield
the Younger
of Blunderstone Rookery
Illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Cover artistHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
CountryUnited Kingdom
Genres Novel, Bildungsroman
PublishedSerialised May 1849 – November 1850; book format 1850
Publisher Bradbury & Evans
Media typePrint
Pages624 (first book edition) [1]
Preceded by Dombey and Son  
Followed by Bleak House  

David Copperfield [N 1] is a novel by Charles Dickens, narrated by the eponymous David Copperfield, detailing his adventures in his journey from infancy to maturity. As such, it is typically categorized in the bildungsroman genre. It was published as a serial in 1849 and 1850 and then as a book in 1850.


David Copperfield is also a partially autobiographical novel: [2] "a very complicated weaving of truth and invention", [3] with events following Dickens's own life. [4] Of the books he wrote, it was his favourite. [5] Called "the triumph of the art of Dickens", [6] [7] it marks a turning point in his work, separating the novels of youth and those of maturity. [8]

At first glance, the work is modelled on 18th-century "personal histories" that were very popular, like Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones , but David Copperfield is a more carefully structured work. It begins, like other novels by Dickens, with a bleak picture of childhood in Victorian England, followed by young Copperfield's slow social ascent, as he painfully provides for his aunt, while continuing his studies. [9]

Dickens wrote without an outline, unlike his previous novel, Dombey and Son . Some aspects of the story were fixed in his mind from the start, but others were undecided until the serial publications were underway. [10] The novel has a primary theme of growth and change, but Dickens also satirises many aspects of Victorian life. These include the plight of prostitutes, the status of women in marriage, class structure, the criminal justice system, the quality of schools, and the employment of children in factories. [11]

Plot summary

The England of David Copperfield. Copperfield, map of England.jpeg
The England of David Copperfield.

The story follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood to maturity. David was born in Blunderstone, Suffolk, England, six months after the death of his father. David spends his early years residing in a small house called the Rookery. His loving and childish mother and their kindly housekeeper, Clara Peggotty, raise him here, where they call him Davy. When he is seven years old his mother marries Edward Murdstone without having told him they plan to marry. To get him out of the way, David is sent to visit with Peggotty's family in Yarmouth. Her brother, fisherman Mr Peggotty, lives in a beached barge, with his adopted niece and nephew Emily and Ham, and an elderly widow, Mrs Gummidge. "Little Em'ly" is somewhat spoiled by her fond foster father, and David is in love with her. They call him Master Copperfield.

On his return, David discovers his mother has married and is immediately given good reason to dislike his stepfather, Murdstone, who believes exclusively in stern, harsh methods of parenting, calling it "firmness". David has similar feelings for Murdstone's sister Jane, who moves into the house soon afterwards. Between them they tyrannise David and his poor mother, making their lives miserable. When David falls behind in his studies, Murdstone thrashes him, and David bites his hand; in consequence, he is sent away to Salem House, a boarding school, under a ruthless headmaster named Mr Creakle. There he is befriended by an older boy, James Steerforth, and Tommy Traddles. He develops an impassioned admiration for Steerforth, perceiving him as someone noble, who could do great things if he would, and one who pays attention to him.

David goes home for the holidays to learn that his mother has given birth to a baby boy. Shortly after David returns to Salem House, his mother and her baby die, and David returns home immediately. Peggotty marries the local carrier, Mr Barkis. Murdstone sends David to work for a wine merchant in London – a business of which Murdstone is a joint owner. After some months, David's friendly but spendthrift landlord, Wilkins Micawber, is arrested for debt and sent to the King's Bench Prison, and the rest of Mr. Micawber's family soon moves to the Prison too. David continues to visit regularly with the Micawbers at the Prison, and boards nearby. When Micawber's release is imminent, the Micawbers decide they will soon move to Plymouth. David realises that will leave him alone in London, where no one cares about him. He makes up his mind to run away to Dover to find his only known remaining relative, his eccentric and kind-hearted great-aunt Betsey Trotwood. She had come to Blunderstone at his birth, only to depart in ire upon learning that he was not a girl. However, she takes it upon herself to raise David, despite Murdstone's attempt to regain custody of him. She encourages him to 'be as like his sister, 'Betsey Trotwood' as he can be – that is, to meet the expectations she had for the girl who was never born. David's great-aunt renames him "Trotwood Copperfield" and addresses him as "Trot", one of several names others call David in the novel.

David's aunt sends him to a better school than the last he attended. It is run by kind Dr. Strong, whose methods inculcate honour and self-reliance in his pupils. During term, David lodges with the lawyer Mr Wickfield and his daughter Agnes, who becomes David's friend and confidante. Wickfield's clerk, Uriah Heep, also lives at the house.

By devious means, Uriah Heep gradually gains a complete ascendancy over the aging and alcoholic Wickfield, to Agnes's great sorrow. Heep, as he maliciously confides to David, aspires to marry Agnes. Ultimately with the aid of Micawber, who has been employed by Heep as a secretary, his fraudulent behaviour is revealed. (At the end of the book, David encounters him in prison, convicted of attempting to defraud the Bank of England.)

After completing school, David apprentices to be a proctor. During this time, due to Heep's fraudulent activities, his aunt's fortune has diminished. David toils to make a living. He works mornings and evenings for his former teacher Dr Strong as a secretary, and also starts to learn shorthand, with the help of his old school-friend Traddles, upon completion reporting parliamentary debate for a newspaper. With considerable moral support from Agnes and his own great diligence and hard work, David ultimately finds fame and fortune as an author, writing fiction.

David's romantic but self-serving school friend, Steerforth, also re-acquainted with David, goes on to seduce and dishonour Emily, offering to marry her off to his manservant Littimer before deserting her in Europe. Her uncle Mr Peggotty manages to find her with the help of Martha, who had grown up in their part of England and then settled in London. Ham, who had been engaged to marry Emily before the tragedy, dies in a fierce storm off the coast while rescuing shipwreck victims. Steerforth was aboard the ship and also dies. Mr Peggotty takes Emily to a new life in Australia, accompanied by Mrs Gummidge and the Micawbers, where all eventually find security and happiness.

David, meanwhile, has fallen completely in love with Dora Spenlow, and then marries her. Their marriage proves troublesome for David in the sense of everyday practical affairs, but he never stops loving her. Dora dies early in their marriage after a miscarriage. After Dora's death, Agnes encourages David to return to normal life and his profession of writing. While living in Switzerland to dispel his grief over so many losses, David realises that he loves Agnes. Upon returning to Britain, after a failed attempt to conceal his feelings, David finds that Agnes loves him too. They quickly marry, and in this marriage he finds true happiness. David and Agnes then have at least five children, including a daughter named after his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood.


Illustration of David falling in love with Dora Spenlow, by Frank Reynolds Dora Spenlow from David Copperfield art by Frank Reynolds.jpg
Illustration of David falling in love with Dora Spenlow, by Frank Reynolds

Autobiographical novel

Fragments of autobiography

Between 1845 and 1848, Dickens wrote fragments of autobiography, excerpts of which he showed to his wife and John Forster. Then in 1855 he made an attempt at revising it. This was a failure because, as he tells his first love Maria Beadnell (now Mrs Winter), when he began dealing with his youthful love for her, "I lost courage and burned the rest". [12] [13] Paul Schlicke points out that in fact not all the pages have gone through the flames and that, as Dickens began writing David Copperfield some pages were unearthed. Proof of this is found in the eleventh chapter of the novel: "I begin Life on my own Account and don't like it", where the story of Dickens's experience at the Warren Shoe Factory is told almost verbatim, with the only change, "Mr Micawber" instead of "my father". [4] John Forster also published substantial extracts relating to this period in Dickens's biography, including a paragraph devoted to Wellington House College, which corresponds with the second stage of childhood recounted in the novel. [14] Thus Dickens looks back on his painful past, already evoked by the martyrdom of Little Paul in Dombey and Son , though voiced by an omniscient narrator in that earlier novel. [15] Until Forster published his biography of Dickens in 1872–1874, no one knew that Dickens had worked in a factory as a child, not even his wife, until Dickens wrote it down and gave the papers to Forster in 1847. [16] The first generations of readers did not know this part of David Copperfield's story began like an incident in the author's life.

The autobiographical dimension

If David Copperfield has come to be Dickens's "darling", it is because it is the most autobiographical of all his novels. [17] Some of the most painful episodes of his life are barely disguised; others appear indirectly, termed "oblique revelations" by Paul Davis. [17] However, Dickens himself wrote to Forster that the book is not a pure autobiography, but "a very complicated weaving of truth and invention". [3]

The autobiographical material

The most important autobiographical material concerns the months that Dickens, still a child, spent at the Warren factory, his diligence with his first love, Maria Beadnell (see Catherine Dickens and Ellen Ternan), and finally his career as a journalist and writer. As pointed out by his biographer and friend John Forster, these episodes are essentially factual: the description of forced labor to which David is subjected at Murdstone and Grinby reproduces verbatim the autobiographical fragments entrusted to his friend; David's fascination with Dora Spenlow is similar to that inspired by the capricious Maria; the major stages of his career, from his apprenticeship at Doctors' Commons to writing his first novel, via the shorthand reporting of parliamentary procedures, also follow those of its creator. [17]

However, this material, like the other autobiographical aspects of the novel, is not systematically reproduced as such. The cruel Mr Murdstone is very different from the real James Lamert, cousin to Dickens, being the stepson of Mrs Dickens's mother's sister, who lived with the family in Chatham and Camden Town, and who had found for the young Charles the place of tagger in the shoe factory he managed for his brother-in-law George. [18] The end of this episode looks nothing like what happens in the novel; in reality, contrary to the desire of his mother that he continue to work, it is his father who took him out of the warehouse to send him to school. Contrary to Charles's frustrated love for Maria Beadnell, who pushed him back in front of his parents' opposition, David, in the novel, marries Dora Spenlow and, with satisfaction ex post facto, writes Paul Davis, virtually "kills" the recalcitrant stepfather. [17] Finally, David's literary career seems less agitated than that of Dickens, and his results are much less spectacular. David's natural modesty alone does not explain all these changes; Paul Davis expresses the opinion that Dickens recounts his life as he would have liked it, and along with "conscious artistry", Dickens knows how to borrow data, integrate them to his original purpose and transform them according to the novelistic necessities, so that "In the end, Copperfield is David's autobiography, not Dickens's". [17]

Sources and context

Dickens's past

David Copperfield is the contemporary of two major memory-based works, William Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850), an autobiographical poem about the formative experiences of his youth and Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850) which eulogises the memory of his friend, Arthur Hallam. [19] [N 2] There is Wordsworth's romantic questioning on the personal development of the individual and there is Tennyson's Victorian confrontation with change and doubt. According to Andrew Sanders, David Copperfield reflects both types of response, which give this novel the privileged position of representing the hinge of the century. [20]

The memories of Dickens are, according to Paul Schlicke, remarkably transmuted into fiction. [19] The experience Dickens lived, as the son of a brazen impenitent, is celebrated through the comic figure of Wilkins Micawber. Dickens's youthful passion for Maria Beadnell resurfaces with tenderness, in the form of David's impractical marriage with Dora Spenlow. Dickens's decision to make David a novelist emphasises how he used this book to re-invent himself as a man and artist, "The world would not take another Pickwick from me, but we can be cheerful and merry, and with a little more purpose in us". [21] If the preoccupation with the adventures of a hero, associated with a parade of comic or grotesque characters, looks back to Dickens's earlier novels, the interest in personal development, the pessimistic atmosphere and the complex structure of Copperfield foreshadow other novels. [19]

Contemporaneous novels

In 1847, Jane Eyre , Charlotte Brontë's first-person narrative, was acclaimed as soon as it was published. Unlike Thackeray, who adored it, Dickens claims years later never to have read it. [22] True or false, he had encountered Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton , a novel that called for understanding and sympathy in a class-eaten society. [23] Thackeray's Pendennis was serialised at the same time as David Copperfield and it depicts its hero's personal and social journey from the countryside to the city. A rivalry existed between the two writers, though it preoccupied Thackeray more than Dickens. The most direct literary influence is "obviously Carlyle" who, in a lecture given in 1840, the year of his meeting with Dickens, on "On Heroes, Hero-Worship" and "the Heroic in History", claims that the most important modern character is "the hero as a man of letters". [24] [25] [20] This is David's destiny, through experience, perseverance and seriousness. [24]

Development of the novel

First inspirations

Charles Dickens in 1850 Charles Dickens 1850.jpeg
Charles Dickens in 1850

On 7 January 1849, Dickens visited Norwich and Yarmouth in Norfolk, with two close friends, John Leech (1817–1864) and Mark Lemon (1809–1870). [26] Leech was an illustrator at Punch , a satirical magazine, and the first illustrator for A Christmas Carol by Dickens in 1843. Lemon was a founding editor of Punch, and soon a contributor to Household Words , the weekly magazine Dickens was starting up; he co-authored Mr Nightingale's Diary, a farce, with Dickens in 1851. [27] [28] The two towns, especially the second, became important in the novel, and Dickens informed Forster that Yarmouth seemed to him to be "the strangest place in the world" and that he would "certainly try my hand at it". [29] During a walk in the vicinity of Yarmouth, Dickens noticed a sign indicating the small locality of Blunderston, which became in his novel the village of "Blunderstone" where David is born and spends his childhood. [15]

A week after his arrival in Yarmouth, his sixth son, Henry Fielding Dickens, was named after Henry Fielding, his favourite past author. Per Forster, Dickens refers to Fielding "as a kind of homage to the novel he was about to write". [30]

As always with Dickens, when a writing project began, he was agitated, melancholic, "even deeper than the customary birth pangs of other novels"; [30] as always, he hesitated about the title, and his working notes contain seventeen variants, "Charles Copperfield" included. [15] After several attempts, he stopped on "The Copperfield Survey of the World as it Rolled", a title that he retained until 19 April. [31] When Forster pointed out that his hero, now called David, has his own initials transposed, Dickens was intrigued and declared that this was a manifestation of his fate. [30] He was not yet sure of his pen: "Though I know what I want to do, I am lumbering like a train wagon", [32] he told Forster.

No general plan, but an inspired novel

Charles I (1600-49), whose decapitation is the obsession of Mr Dick. Charles I in Three Positions by Anthony Van Dyck 1635-1636. Sir Anthony Van Dyck - Charles I (1600-49) - Google Art Project.jpg
Charles I (1600–49), whose decapitation is the obsession of Mr Dick. Charles I in Three Positions by Anthony Van Dyck 1635–1636.

Contrary to the method previously used for Dombey and Son , Dickens did not elaborate an overall plan and often wrote the summary of a chapter after completing it. Four character names were found at the last moment: Traddles, Barkis, Creakle and Steerforth; [33] the profession of David remains uncertain until the eighth issue (printed in December 1849, containing Chapters 22–24, in which David chooses to be trained as a proctor); and Paul Schlicke notes that the future of Dora was still not determined on 17 May 1850 (when 37 chapters had been published in the first 12 monthly instalments). Other major aspects of the novel, however, were immediately fixed, such as David's meeting with Aunt Betsey, Emily's fall or Agnes's role as the "real" heroine of the story. [10]

Once launched, Dickens becomes "quite confident". [34] The most difficult thing was to insert "what I know so well", his experience at the Warren factory; once the threads were woven, however, the truth mixed with fiction, he exulted and congratulated himself in a letter to Forster. [35] From now on, he wrote in this letter, the story "bore him irresistibly along". Never, it seems, was he in the grip of failures of inspiration, so "ardent [is his] sympathy with the creatures of the fancy which always made real to him their sufferings or sorrows." [30]

Changes in detail occur during the composition: on 22 August 1849, while staying on the Isle of Wight for a family vacation, he changed on the advice of Forster, the theme of the obsession of Mr Dick, a secondary character in the novel. This theme was originally "a bull in a china shop" and became "King Charles's head" in a nod to the bicentenary of the execution of Charles I of England. [N 3] [10]

Last incidents in the writing

Although plunged into the writing of his novel, Dickens set out to create a new journal, Household Words , [36] the first issue of which appeared on 31 March 1850. This daunting task, however, did not seem to slow down the writing of David Copperfield: I am "busy as a bee", he writes happily to the actor William Macready. [37]

A serious incident occurred in December: Mrs Jane Seymour Hill, chiropractor to Mrs Dickens, [38] raised the threat of prosecution, because she recognised herself in the portrait of Miss Mowcher; Dickens did not do badly, [39] gradually modifying the psychology of the character by making her less of a caricature and, at the very end of the novel, by making her a friend of the protagonist, whereas at the beginning she served rather contrary purposes. [38] This was, writes Harry Stone, "the only major departure from his original plans". [40]

His third daughter was born on 16 August 1850, called Dora Annie Dickens, the same name as his character's first wife. The baby died nine months later after the last serial was issued and the book was published. [10]

Dickens marked the end of his manuscript on 21 October 1850 [10] and felt both torn and happy like every time he finished a novel: "Oh, my dear Forster, if I were to say half of what Copperfield makes me feel to-night, how strangely, even to you, I should be turned inside out! I seem to be sending some part of myself into the Shadowy World." [41] [10]

At first glance, the work is modelled in the loose and somewhat disjointed way of "personal histories" that was very popular in the United Kingdom of the 18th century; [N 4] but in reality, David Copperfield is a carefully structured and unified novel. It begins, like other novels by Dickens, with a rather bleak painting of the conditions of childhood in Victorian England, notoriously when the troublesome children are parked in infamous boarding schools, then he strives to trace the slow social and intimate ascent of a young man who, painfully providing for the needs of his good aunt while continuing his studies, ends up becoming a writer: the story, writes Paul Davis, of "a Victorian everyman seeking self-understanding". [9]

Publication in monthly instalments

"The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger, of Blunderstone Rookery" [N 5] was published from 1 May 1849 to 1 November 1850 in 19 monthly one-shilling instalments, containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne ("Phiz"), with a title cover simplified to The Personal History of David Copperfield. The last instalment was a double-number.

On the other side of the Atlantic, John Wiley & Sons and G. P. Putnam published a monthly edition, then a two-volume book version.

Title page of the first edition by Bradbury & Evans, signed by Dickens Houghton HEW 2.6.15 - Dickens, David Copperfield.jpg
Title page of the first edition by Bradbury & Evans, signed by Dickens

Point of view

Whatever the borrowings from Dickens's own life, the reader knows as an essential precondition, that David Copperfield is a novel and not an autobiography; a work with fictional events and characters – including the hero-narrator – who are creations of Dickens's imagination.

First person narrator

The use of the first person determines the point of view: the narrator Copperfield, is a recognised writer, married to Agnes for more than ten years, who has decided to speak in public about his past life. This recreation, in itself an important act, can only be partial and also biased, since, a priori, Copperfield is the only viewpoint and the only voice; not enjoying the prerogatives of the third person, omnipotence, ubiquity, clairvoyance, he relates only what he witnessed or participated in: [42] all the characters appear in his presence or, failing that, he learns through hearsay, before being subjected to his pen through the prism of his conscience, deformed by the natural deficit of his perception and accentuated by the selective filter of memory. [43] Story teller and teacher, Copperfield does not let the facts speak for themselves, but constantly asserts himself as master of the narrative game, and he intervenes, explains, interprets and comments. His point of view is that of the adult he has become, as he expresses himself just as he is writing. At the end of his book, he feels a writer's pride to evoke "the thread[s] in the web I have spun". [44]

Gareth Cordery writes that "if David Copperfield is the paradigmatic Bildungsroman, it is also the quintessential novel of memory" [45] and as such, according to Angus Wilson, the equal of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). [46] The memory of the hero engages so intensely with his memories that the past seems present:

How well I recollect the kind of day it was! I smell the fog that hung about the place; I see the hoar-frost, ghostly, through it; I feel my rimy hair fall clammy on my cheek; I look along the dim perspective of the schoolroom, with a sputtering candle here and there to light up the foggy morning, and the breath of the boys wreathing and smoking in the raw cold as they blow upon their fingers, and rap their feet upon the floor. [47]

In such passages, which punctuate the retrospective chapters, the relived moment replaces the lived, the historical present seals the collapse of the original experience and the recreation of a here and now that seizes the entire field of consciousness. [48] Sometimes this resurrected experience is more vivid than reality; so, in Chapter 41, about Traddles's face, he says: "His honest face, he looked at me with a serio-comic shake of his head impresses me more in the remembrance than it did in the reality." [49] These are "sacred moments", writes Gareth Cordery, which Copperfield has carefully guarded in "the treasure chambers" [N 6] of his memory, where sings "the music of time": [48] "secret prose, that sense of a mind speaking to itself with no one there to listen". [50]

Commentary via the illustrations

Sudden arrival at the Peggotty home by Phiz David Copperfield. We arrive unexpectedly.jpg
Sudden arrival at the Peggotty home by Phiz

Without being Dickens, this narrator, Copperfield, is very like him and often becomes his spokesperson. It adds to his point of view, directly or indirectly, that of the author, without there necessarily being total match between the two. As such, Copperfield serves as "medium", mirror and also screen, Dickens sometimes subverting his speech to get to the forefront or, on the contrary, hide behind this elegant delegate to the nimble pen. Dickens's voice, however, is in general well concealed and, according to Gareth Cordery, the most difficult to detect because mostly present by implication. [51] To help hear his voice, he adds, it is advisable to turn to Phiz, whose illustrations bring a point of view which is not always in agreement with that of Copperfield. For example, in chapter 21, the two friends arrive by surprise at the Peggotty home, and Copperfield presents Steerforth to Emily at the very moment when her betrothal with Ham has just been announced. This sudden intrusion stops the girl as she has just jumped from Ham's arms to nestle in those of Mr Peggotty, a sign, says Cordery in passing, that the promise of marriage is as much for the uncle as for the nephew. The text remains brief but Phiz interprets, anticipates the events, denounces even the future guilt of Copperfield: all eyes are on the girl, her bonnet, emblem of her social aspirations and her next wanderings with Steerforth, is ready to be seized. Copperfield, dressed as a gentleman, stands in the doorway, one finger pointing at Steerforth who is taller by one head, the other measuring the gap between Ham and Dan Peggotty, as if offering Emily to his friend. Emily, meanwhile, still has her head turned to Ham but the body is withdrawn and the look has become both challenging and provocative. Phiz brings together in a single image a whole bunch of unwritten information, which Dickens approved and probably even suggested. [52]

Reader's insight

The Wanderer, Mr Peggotty talks to David as Martha overhears, by Phiz. David Copperfield, The Wanderer.jpg
The Wanderer, Mr Peggotty talks to David as Martha overhears, by Phiz.

A third perspective is the point of view of the discerning reader who, although generally carried away by sympathy for the narrator's self-interested pleading, does not remain blissfully ignorant and ends up recognizing the faults of the man and of the writer, just as the reader also learns to identify and gauge the covert interventions of the author.

The discerning reader listens to the adult Copperfield and hears what this adult wants or does not want them to hear. "Even though this manuscript is intended for no eyes but mine", (chapter 42) [53] the book exists, and the reader becomes ipso facto a "father-confessor", [48] knowing how to judge and even, at times, to doubt the sincerity of the emotion expressed. So, when Dora dies, the reader sees that the topic of grief is dropped in a hurry, as if Copperfield had more important things to do than to indulge in sorrow: "this is not the time at which I am to enter a state of mind beneath its load of sorrow", [54] which creates a question and an embarrassment: is Copperfield protecting himself from his confusion, or does he shed some crocodile tears for form?

Copperfield also examines some of his most culpable weaknesses, such as unconscious connivance (his "own unconscious part") in the defilement of the Peggotty home by Steerforth, which he remains forever incapable of opposing: "I believe that if I had been brought face to face with him, I could not have uttered one reproach."(chapter 32) [55] The same treatment is given to his childhood love, his so much idealised Emily, who, once "fallen", is expelled from his consciousness to the point where his last comment, when he stealthily sees her aboard the ship leaving for Australia, is "a masterpiece of narrative duplicity": far from seeing in her what she has become, a real woman, he takes refuge behind the image of a pathetic religious icon elegantly allowing him to remove his own guilt for betraying her. [56]

These underground currents are thus revealed in David's psychological struggle, Gareth Cordery concludes, currents that his narrative unconsciously attempts to disguise. [57]

Recapitulation of plot structure

The plot line

The story is a road from which different paths leave. The road is that of David's life, the main plot; the branches are born of meetings with him and lead to several secondary intrigues taken more or less far along. Each is represented by an important figure: Mr Micawber, Steerforth, little Emily, Uriah Heep; there are side stories, that of Martha Endell, Rosa Dartle, and, along the main road, stretch some parallel paths on which the reader is from time to time invited: the Traddles, Betsey Trotwood, the Peggotty family, Dan and Ham in particular, Peggotty herself remaining from start to finish intimately related to David. The different tracks do not move away from the main avenue, and when they do, a narrative "forceps" brings them together again. Hence the retrospective chapters and the ultimate recapitulation were written. [58]

The necessary summaries

Mr Peggotty finds young Emily, by Phiz. David Copperfield 1850 p512.png
Mr Peggotty finds young Emily, by Phiz.

The narrative is linear in appearance, as is usual in traditional first-person form. It covers the narrator's life until the day he decides to put an end to his literary endeavor. However, whole sections of his life are summarised in a few paragraphs, or sometimes just a sentence or two, indicating that three or ten years have passed, or that Dora is dead, necessary to keep the story moving along. Thus, the long stay of reflection in Switzerland which leads to the recognition of love for Agnes, or the lapse of time before the final chapter, are all blanks in the story. Besides the hero, this story concerns important secondary characters such as Mr Micawber or Uriah Heep, or Betsey Trotwood and Traddles, the few facts necessary for a believable story are parsimoniously distilled in the final chapters: an impromptu visit to a prison, the unexpected return of Dan Peggotty from the Antipodes; so many false surprises for the narrator who needs them to complete each person's personal story. As such, the epilogue that represents the last chapter (Ch 64) is a model of the genre, a systematic review, presumably inspired by his memory, without true connection. There is the desire to finish with each one, with forced exclamations and ecstatic observations, scrolling through the lives of those who are frozen in time: Dick with his "Memorial" and his kite, Dr Strong and his dictionary, and as a bonus, the news of David's "least child", which implies that there have been other children between him and eldest child Agnes of whom the reader has never heard by name. So also goes the story of Dan Peggotty relating the sad tale of his niece. The four chapters called "Retrospect" (Chapter 18: "A Retrospect", Chapter 43: "Another Retrospect", Chapter 53: "Another Retrospect" and Chapter 64: "A Last Retrospect") are placed at strategic moments of the general discourse, which play a catch-up role more than one of meditation by the narrator, without venturing into event details. Here, the narration has disappeared, it has given way to a list, an enumeration of events. [59]

Restructuring a posteriori

Dickens's approach, as shown in David Copperfield, does not escape what fr:Georges Gusdorf calls "the original sin of autobiography", that is to say a restructuring a posteriori and in this, paradoxically, it demonstrates its authenticity. [60] It consists of splitting one's life into parts, choosing decisive phases, identifying an evolution and endowing them with a direction and then a meaning, whereas, from day to day, existence has been lived as a cluster of shapeless perceptions requiring an immediate adaptation, that captures at best in the novel the use of the historical present generally adopted by Dickens. It is a succession of autonomous moments which do not end up amalgamating in a coherent whole and that connect the tenuous thread of the "I" recognizing each other. In this reconstruction, one part of truth and the other of poetry, the famous Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth; 1811–1833), autobiography of Goethe, there is the obligatory absence of objectivity, the promotion of oblivion as an integral part of memory, the ruling power of the subjectivity of time found. [61]

Thus, to use George Gusdorf's words again, David Copperfield appears as a "second reading of a man's experience", in this case, Charles Dickens, when he reached the fullness of his career, tried to give "a meaning to his legend". [62]


This novel's main theme arises from the fact that it is a bildungsroman, a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, which is common in Dickens's novels, [63] and in which character change is extremely important. [64] [65] The changes involve David leaving past selves behind on the way to maturity. Other important themes relate especially to Dickens's social concerns, and his desire for reform. This includes the plight of so-called "fallen women", and prostitutes, as well as the attitude of middle-class society to these women; the status of women in marriage; the rigid class structure; the prison system; educational standards, and emigration to the colonies of what was becoming the British Empire. The latter was a way for individuals to escape some of the rigidity of British society and start anew. Some of these subjects are directly satirized, while others are worked into the novel in more complex ways by Dickens.


Different names

David reaches Canterbury, from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds David reaches Canterbury, from David Copperfield art by Frank Reynolds.jpg
David reaches Canterbury, from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds

Copperfield's path to maturity is marked by the different names assigned to him: his mother calls him "Davy"; Murdstone calls him as "Brooks of Sheffield"; for Peggotty's family, he is "Mas'r Davy"; en route to boarding school from Yarmouth, he appears as "Master Murdstone"; at Murdstone and Grinby, he is known as "Master Copperfield"; Mr Micawber is content with "Copperfield"; for Steerforth he is "Daisy"; he becomes "Mister Copperfield" with Uriah Heep; and "Trotwood", soon shortened to "Trot" for Aunt Betsey; Mrs Crupp deforms his name into "Mr Copperfull"; and for Dora he is "Doady". [66] While striving to earn his real name once and for all, this plethora of names reflects the fluidity of Copperfield's personal and social relationships, and obscure his real identity. It is by writing his own story, and giving him his name in the title, that Copperfield can finally assert who he is. [66]

A series of lives

David's life can be seen as a series of lives, each one in radical disjunction from what follows, writes Paul Davis. [67] The young boy in the warehouse differs from Blunderstone Rookery's child, or Salem House student, and overall David strives to keep these parts of himself disconnected from each other. For example, in Chapter 17, while attending Canterbury School, he met Mr Micawber at Uriah Heep's, and a sudden terror gripped him that Heep could connect him, such as he is today, and the abandoned child who lodged with the Micawber family in London. [67]

So many mutations indicate the name changes, which are sometimes received with relief: "Trotwood Copperfield", when he finds refuge in Dover at his Aunt Betsey's house, so the narrator writes, "Thus I began my new life, in a new name, and with everything new about me." Then, he realised "that a remoteness had come upon the old Blunderstone life" and "that a curtain had for ever fallen on my life at Murdstone and Grinby's". [68]

There is a process of forgetfulness, a survival strategy developed by memory, which poses a major challenge to the narrator; his art, in fact, depends on the ultimate reconciliation of differences in order to free and preserve the unified identity of his being a man.

"Will I be the hero of my own life?"

Mr Dick and his kite, from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds Mr. Dick and his kite, from David Copperfield art by Frank Reynolds.jpg
Mr Dick and his kite, from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds

David opens his story with a question: Will I be the hero of my own life? This means that he does not know where his approach will lead him, that writing itself will be the test. As Paul Davis puts it, "In this Victorian quest narrative, the pen might be lighter than the sword, and the reader will be left to judge those qualities of the man and the writer that constitute heroism. [17]

However, question implies an affirmation: it is Copperfield, and no one else, who will determine his life, the future is delusory, since the games are already played, the life has been lived, with the novel being only the story. Copperfield is not always the hero of his life, and not always the hero of his story, as some characters have a stronger role than him, [69] Besides Steerforth, Heep, Micawber, for example, he often appears passive and lightweight. Hence, concludes Paul Davis, the need to read his life differently; it is more by refraction through other characters that the reader has a true idea of the "hero" of the story. What do these three men reveal to him, and also to Dora, whom he marries? [67] Another possible yardstick is a comparison with the other two "writers" of the novel, Dr Strong and Mr Dick. The dictionary of Strong will never be completed and, as a story of a life, will end with the death of its author. As for Mr Dick, his autobiographical project constantly raises the question of whether he can transcend the incoherence and indecision of his subject-narrator. Will he be able to take the reins, provide a beginning, a middle, an end? Will he succeed in unifying the whole, in overcoming the trauma of the past, his obsession with the decapitated royal head, so as to make sense of the present and find a direction for the future? According to Paul Davis, only Copperfield succeeds in constructing a whole of his life, including suffering and failure, as well as successes, and that is "one measure of his heroism as a writer". [67]

The weight of the past

The past "speaks" especially to David, "a child of close observation" (chapter 2); the title of this chapter is: "I observe", [70] and as an adult he is endowed with a remarkable memory. [71] So much so that the story of his childhood is realised so concretely that the narrator, like the reader, sometimes forgets that it is a lived past and not a present that is given to see. The past tense verb is often the preterite for the narrative, and the sentences are often short independent propositions, each one stating a fact. Admittedly, the adult narrator intervenes to qualify or provide an explanation, without, however, taking precedence over the child's vision. And sometimes, the story is prolonged by a reflection on the functioning of the memory. So, again in chapter 2, the second and third paragraphs comment on the first memory of the two beings surrounding David, his mother, and Peggotty:

I believe I can remember these two at a little distance apart, dwarfed to my sight by stooping or kneeling on the floor, and I going unsteadily from the one to the other. I have an impression on my mind, which I cannot distinguish from actual remembrance, of the touch of Peggotty's forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg-grater.
This may be fancy, though I think the memory of most of us can go further back into such times than many of us suppose; just as I believe the power of observation in numbers of very young children to be quite wonderful for its closeness and accuracy. Indeed, I think that most grown men who are remarkable in this respect may with greater propriety be said not to have lost the faculty than to have acquired it; the rather, as I generally observe such men to retain a certain freshness, and gentleness, and capacity of being pleased, which are also an inheritance they have preserved from their childhood. [70]

David thus succeeds, as George Orwell puts it, in standing "both inside and outside a child's mind", [17] a particularly important double vision effect in the first chapters. The perspective of the child is combined with that of the adult narrator who knows that innocence will be violated and the feeling of security broken. Thus, even before the intrusion of Mr Murdstone as step-father or Clara's death, the boy feels "intimations of mortality". [17] In the second chapter for example, when David spends a day with Mr Murdstone, during the first episode of "Brooks of Sheffield" [N 7] [72] [73] in which, first blow to his confidence, he realises little by little that Mr Murdstone and his comrade Quinion are mocking him badly:

'That's Davy,' returned Mr Murdstone.
'Davy who?' said the gentleman. 'Jones?'
'Copperfield' said Mr Murdstone.
'What! Bewitching Mrs Copperfield's incumbrance?' cried the gentleman. 'The pretty little widow?'
'Quinion,' said Mr Murdstone, 'take care, if you please. Somebody's sharp.'
'Who is?' asked the gentleman laughing.
I looked up quickly, being curious to know.
'Only Brooks of Sheffield', said Mr Murdstone.
I was quite relieved to find that it was only Brooks of Sheffield, for, at first, I really thought it was I.

There seemed to be something very comical in the reputation of Mr Brooks of Sheffield, for both the gentlemen laughed heartily when he was mentioned, and Mr Murdstone was a good deal amused also. [74]

The final blow, brutal and irremediable this time, is the vision, in chapter 9, of his own reflection in his little dead brother lying on the breast of his mother: "The mother who lay in the grave was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms was myself, as I had once been, hushed forever on her bosom". [75]

A series of male models for David

David Copperfield is a posthumous child, that is, he was born after his father died. [76] From birth, his aunt is the authority who stands in for the deceased father, and she decides Copperfield's identity by abandoning him because he is not female. His first years are spent with women, two Claras, [N 8] his mother and Peggotty, which, according to Paul Davis, "undermines his sense of masculinity". [17] Hence a sensitivity that the same critic calls "feminine", made-up of a lack of confidence, naive innocence and anxiety, like that of his mother, who was herself an orphan. Steerforth is not mistaken, when from the outset he calls Copperfield "Daisy"–a flower of spring, symbol of innocent youth. To forge an identity as a man and learn how to survive in a world governed by masculine values, instinctively, he looks for a father figure who can replace that of the father he did not have.

Several male models will successively offer themselves to him: the adults Mr Murdstone, Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep, his comrades Steerforth and Traddles.

Mr Murdstone
Aunt Betsey & Mr Dick say no to Mr Murdstone and his sister, by Phiz. David Copperfield (1850) (14777068141).jpg
Aunt Betsey & Mr Dick say no to Mr Murdstone and his sister, by Phiz.

Mr Murdstone darkens Copperfield's life instead of enlightening him, because the principle of firmness which he champions, absolute novelty for the initial family unit, if he instills order and discipline, kills spontaneity and love. The resistance that Copperfield offers him is symbolic: opposing a usurper without effective legitimacy, he fails to protect his mother but escapes the straitjacket and achieves his independence. Mr Murdstone thus represents the anti-father, double negative of the one of which David was deprived, model a contrario of what it is not necessary to be.

Mr Micawber
Traddles, Micawber and David from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds Traddles, Micawber and David from David Copperfield art by Frank Reynolds.jpg
Traddles, Micawber and David from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds

The second surrogate father is just as ineffective, although of a diametrically opposed personality: it is Mr Micawber who, for his part, lacks firmness to the point of sinking into irresponsibility. Overflowing with imagination and love, in every way faithful and devoted, inveterate optimist, he eventually becomes, in a way, the child of David who helps him to alleviate his financial difficulties. The roles are reversed and, by the absurdity, David is forced to act as a man and to exercise adult responsibilities towards him. However, the Micawbers are not lacking in charm, the round Wilkins, of course, but also his dry wife, whose music helps her to live. Mrs Micawber has, since childhood, two songs in her repertoire, the Scottish "The dashing white sergeant" [77] and the American lament "The little Tafflin with the Silken Sash", [78] whose attraction has decided her husband to "win that woman or perish in the attempt" [79] In addition to the melodies that soothe and embellish, the words of the second, with her dream "Should e'er the fortune be my lot to be made a wealthy bride!" and her aphorism "Like attracts like" have become emblematic of the couple, one is the opposite of reality and the other the very definition of its harmony. [80]

Uriah Heep

New avatar of this quest, Uriah Heep is "a kind of negative mirror to David". [67] Heep is clever at enlarging the pathos of his humble origins, for example, which ability he exploits shamelessly to attract sympathy and mask an unscrupulous ambition; while David, on the other hand, tends to suppress his modest past and camouflage his social ambitions under a veneer of worldly mistrust, prompting Paul Davis to conclude that, just as Mr Murdstone is adept at firmness, Heep, in addition to being a rascal, lacks the so-called feminine qualities of sensitivity which David does not lose. [67]

Steerforth from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds Steerforth from David Copperfield art by Frank Reynolds.jpg
Steerforth from David Copperfield, by Frank Reynolds

For David, Steerforth represents all that Heep is not: born a gentleman, with no stated ambition or defined life plan, he has a natural presence and charisma that immediately give him scope and power. However, his failure as a model is announced well before the episode at Yarmouth where he seizes, like a thief, Little Emily before causing her loss in Italy. He already shows himself as he is, brutal, condescending, selfish and sufficient, towards Rosa Dartle, bruised by him for life, and Mr Mell who undergoes the assaults of his cruelty. The paradox is that even as he gauges his infamy, David remains from start to finish dazzled by Steerforth's aristocratic ascendancy, even as he contemplates him drowning on Yarmouth Beach, "lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him at school". [81]


Now consider Traddles, the anti-Steerforth, the same age as the hero, not very brilliant at school, but wise enough to avoid the manipulations to which David succumbs. His attraction for moderation and reserve assures him the strength of character that David struggles to forge. Neither rich nor poor, he must also make a place for himself in the world, at which he succeeds by putting love and patience at the center of his priorities, the love that tempers the ambition and the patience that moderates the passion. His ideal is to achieve justice in his actions, which he ends up implementing in his profession practically. In the end, Traddles, in his supreme modesty, represents the best male model available to David. [17]

There are others, Daniel Peggotty for example, all love and dedication, who goes in search of his lost niece and persists in mountains and valleys, beyond the seas and continents, to find her trace. Mr Peggotty is the anti-Murdstone par excellence, but his influence is rather marginal on David, as his absolute excellence, like the maternal perfection embodied by his sister Peggotty, makes him a character type more than an individual to refer to. There is also the carter Barkis, original, laconic and not without defects, but a man of heart. He too plays a role in the personal history of the hero, but in a fashion too episodic to be significant, especially since he dies well before the end of the story.

The hard path to the right balance

It is true that David's personal story makes it more difficult for him to access the kind of equilibrium that Traddles presents, because it seems destined, according to Paul Davis, to reproduce the errors committed by his parents. [67] So, without knowing it, he looks a lot like his late father, also named David, who, according to Aunt Betsey, had eyes only for the flower-women, and, as such, he finds himself as irresistibly attracted to Dora whose delicate and charming femininity, the sweet frivolity too, recall those of his diaphanous mother. The chapters describing their loves are among the best in the novel [67] because Dickens manages to capture the painful ambivalence of David, both passionately infatuated with the irresistible young woman, to whom we can only pass and forgive everything, and frustrated by his weak character and his absolute ignorance of any discipline. For love, the supreme illusion of youth, he tries to change it, to "form her mind", which leads him to recognize that "firmness" can to be a virtue which, ultimately, he needs. However, finding himself in a community of thought, even distantly, with his hateful and cruel stepfather whom he holds responsible for the death of his mother and a good deal of his own misfortunes, it was a troubling discovery. [17]

Dr Strong and his young wife Annie, by Phiz David Copperfield (1850) (14777862664).jpg
Dr Strong and his young wife Annie, by Phiz

It is his aunt Betsey who, by her character, represents the struggle to find the right balance between firmness and gentleness, rationality and empathy. Life forced Betsey Trotwood to assume the role she did not want, that of a father, and as such she became, but in her own way, adept at steadfastness and discipline. From an initially culpable intransigence, which led her to abandon the newborn by denouncing the incompetence of the parents not even capable of producing a girl, she finds herself gradually tempered by circumstances and powerfully helped by the "madness" of her protege, Mr Dick. He, between two flights of kites that carry away the fragments of his personal history, and without his knowing it, plays a moderating role, inflecting the rationality of his protector by his own irrationality, and his cookie-cutter judgments by considerations of seeming absurdity, but which, taken literally, prove to be innate wisdom. In truth, Aunt Betsey, despite her stiffness and bravado, does not dominate her destiny; she may say she can do it, yet she cannot get David to be a girl, or escape the machinations of Uriah Heep any more than the money demands of her mysterious husband. She also fails, in spite of her lucidity, her clear understanding, of the love blindness of her nephew, to prevent him from marrying Dora and in a parallel way, to reconcile the Strongs. In fact, in supreme irony, it is once again Mr Dick who compensates for his inadequacies, succeeding with intuition and instinctive understanding of things, to direct Mr Micawber to save Betsey from the clutches of Heep and also to dispel the misunderstandings of Dr Strong and his wife Annie. [67]

As often in Dickens where a satellite of the main character reproduces the course in parallel, the story of the Strong couple develops in counterpoint that of David and Dora. While Dora is in agony, David, himself obsessed with his role as a husband, observes the Strongs who are busy unraveling their marital distress. Two statements made by Annie Strong impressed him: in the first, she told him why she rejected Jack Maldon and thanked her husband for saving her "from the first impulse of an undisciplined heart". [82] The second was like a flash of revelation: "There can be no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose". [82] At the end of chapter 45, almost entirely devoted to the epilogue of this affair, David meditates on these words which he repeats several times and whose relevance, applied to his own case, is imposed on him. He concludes that in all things, discipline tempered by kindness and kindness is necessary for the equilibrium of a successful life. Mr Murdstone preached firmness; in that, he was not wrong. Where he cruelly failed was that he matched it with selfish brutality instead of making it effective by the love of others. [7]

The happiness of maturity with Agnes

Agnes Wickfield, David's second wife, by Frank Reynolds Agnes Wickfield from David Copperfield art by Frank Reynolds.jpg
Agnes Wickfield, David's second wife, by Frank Reynolds

It is because David has taken stock of his values and accepted the painful memories of Dora's death, that he is finally ready to go beyond his emotional blindness and recognize his love for Agnes Wickfield, the one he already has called the "true heroine" of the novel to which he gives his name. Paul Davis writes that Agnes is surrounded by an aura of sanctity worthy of a stained glass window, that she is more a consciousness or an ideal than a person, that, certainly, she brings the loving discipline and responsibility of which the hero needs, but lacks the charm and human qualities that made Dora so attractive. [7] Adrienne E Gavin, nuancing the point, writes that she is neither more nor less caricature than other young women in the hero's life: if Emily is a stereotype of the "lost woman" and Dora of "woman-child", Agnes is that of "ideal Victorian woman", which necessarily limits, for her as for the others, the possibilities of evolution, the only change available from a loving and devoted daughter to a loving and devoted wife. [83]

That said, the writer David, now David Copperfield, realised the vow expressed to Agnes (when he was newly in love with Dora, in Chapter 35. Depression): "If I had a conjurer's cap, there is no one I should have wished but for you". [84] At the end of his story, he realises that the conjurer's cap is on his head, that he can draw his attention to the people he loves and trusts. Thus, David Copperfield is the story of a journey through life and through oneself, but also, by the grace of the writer, the recreation of the tenuous thread uniting the child and the adult, the past and the present, in what Georges Gusdorf calls "fidelity to the person". [85] or, as Robert Ferrieux said, [86]

Social questions

Admittedly, it is not the primary interest of David Copperfield that remains above all the story of a life told by the very one who lived it, but the novel is imbued with a dominant ideology, that of the middle class, advocating moral constancy, hard work, separate spheres for men and women, and, in general, the art of knowing one's place, indeed staying in that place. Further, some social problems and repeated abuses being topical, Dickens took the opportunity to expose them in his own way in his fiction, and Trevor Blount, in his introduction to the 1966 edition Penguin Classics, reissued in 1985, devotes several pages to this topic. [87]

However, Gareth Cordery shows that behind the display of Victorian values, often hides a watermarked discourse that tends to question, test, and even subvert them. [57] There are therefore two possible readings, the one that remains on the surface and another that questions below this surface, the implicit questions.

Among the social issues that David Copperfield is concerned with, are prostitution, the prison system, education, as well as society's treatment of the insane.

Dickens's views on education are reflected in the contrast he makes between the harsh treatment that David receives at the hands of Creakle at Salem House and Dr Strong's school where the methods used inculcate honour and self–reliance in its pupils.

Through the character of "the amiable, innocent, and wise fool" Mr Dick, Dickens's "advocacy in the humane treatment of the insane" can be seen. [88] Mr Dick's brother

didn't like to have him visible about his house, and sent him away to some private asylum-place: though he had been left to his particular care by their deceased father, who thought him almost a natural. And a wise man he must have been to think so! Mad himself, no doubt.

So Betsy Trotwood, continuing Mr Dick's story in Chapter 14, stepped in to suggest that Mr Dick should be given "his little income, and come and live with" her: "I am ready to take care of him, and shall not ill-treat him as some people (besides the asylum-folks) have done."

Victorian child exploitation

The employment of young children in factories and mines under harsh conditions in the early Victorian era disturbed many. There was a series of Parliamentary enquiries into the working conditions of children, and these "reports shocked writers Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens." [11] Dickens describes children working in factories or other workplaces in several novels, notably in Oliver Twist , and in David Copperfield. Young David works in a factory for a while after his mother dies and his stepfather showed no interest in him. Such depictions contributed to the call for legislative reform. [11]

Prison discipline

Dickens satirises contemporary ideas about how prisoners should be treated in Chapter 61, 'I am Shown Two Interesting Penitents'. In this chapter, published in November 1850, David along with Traddles is shown around a large well-built new prison, modelled on Pentonville prison (built in 1842), where a new, supposedly more humane, system of incarceration is in operation, under the management of David's former headmaster Creakle. [89] A believer in firmness, Dickens denounced comically the system of isolating prisoners in separate cells, the "separate system", and giving them healthy and pleasant food. [N 9] His satire appeals directly to the public, already warned by the long controversy over the prison discipline in the press. [90] Mr Creakle is very proud of this new system, but his enthusiasm is immediately undermined by the reminder of his former ferocity as a school principal. In the prison David and Traddles encounter 'model prisoners' 27 and 28, who they discover are Uriah Heep and Mr Littimer. Heep is seen reading a hymn book and Littimer also "walked forth, reading a good book": both have managed to convince the naïve Creakle, and his fellow magistrates, that they have seen the error of their ways. Both are questioned about the quality of the food and Creakle promises improvements. [91]

Dickens's ideas in this chapter were in line with Carlyle, whose pamphlet, "Model Prisons", also denounced Pentonville Prison, was published in the spring of 1850. [89] Indeed, Dickens had published anonymously, a month after Carlyle's pamphlet on the same subject, "Pet Prisonners". [92]

Emigration to Australia

Mr Micawber and the art of baking, with Mrs Micawber and the twins, by Fred Barnard. Fred Barnard08.jpg
Mr Micawber and the art of baking, with Mrs Micawber and the twins, by Fred Barnard.

Dickens's exploration of the subject of emigration in the novel has been criticised, initially by John Forster and later by G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton accused Dickens of presenting emigration in an excessively optimistic light, arguing that Dickens believed that by sending a boatload of people overseas their 'souls' can be changed, while ignoring the fact that poor people like Peggotty have seen their home stained or, like Emily, their honour tarnished. Micawber has been broken by the English social system, his journey to the antipodes is paid for by a paragon of the Victorian bourgeoisie, Betsey Trotwood [93] and he is supposed to regain control of his destiny once he has arrived in Australia. [94] Trevor Blount points out that the word 'soul' has a different meaning for Dickens than Chesterton. Dickens cares about material and psychological happiness, and is convinced that physical well-being is a comfort for life's wounds.

Dickens sent his characters to America in Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit , but he has the Peggotty and Micawber families emigrate to Australia. This approach was part of the official policy of the 1840s, focusing on Australia as a land of welcome. It was at this time necessary to stimulate interest in the new colony and propagandists arrived in England in particular John Dunmore Lang and Caroline Chisholm from Australia. Dickens was only following this movement and, in any case, had faith in family colonisation. Moreover, the idea that redemption could be achieved by such a new start in a person's life was a preoccupation of the author, and he saw here subject matter to charm his readers. [95]

From the point of view of the novel's inner logic, in order for Copperfield to complete his psychological maturation and exist independently, Dickens must expel his surrogate fathers, including Peggotty and Micawber, and emigration is an easy way to remove them. [7]

Visions for society

The episode in the prison, according to novelist Angus Wilson, is more than a piece of journalism; [96] it represents Dickens's vision of the society in which he lives. The same can be said of the episodes concerning prostitution and emigration, which illuminate the limits of Copperfield's moral universe and Dickens's own uncertainties. [97] That everything is put in order in Australia, that Martha marries a man from the bush, that Emily, in the strong arms of Dan Peggotty, becomes a lady of good works, that Micawber, who had been congenitally insolvent, suddenly acquires the management skills and becomes prosperous in dispensing justice. All these conversions are somewhat 'ironic', [98] and tend to undermine the hypothesis of 'a Dickens believing in the miracle of the antipodes', which Jane Rogers considers in her analysis of the 'fallen woman' as a plot device to gain the sympathy of Dickens's readers for Emily. [99]

The middle-class ideology

John Forster, Dickens's early biographer, praises the bourgeois or middle-class values and ideology found in David Copperfield. [100] Like him the Victorian reading public shared Copperfield's complacent views, expressed with the assurance of success that is his, at the end, as a recognized writer who is happy in marriage and safe from need.

Gateth Cordery takes a close look at class consciousness. According to him, Copperfield's relationship with aristocrat Steerforth and the humble Uriah Heep is "crucial". [57] From the beginning, Copperfield ranks as and is considered by his friends among the good people. The Peggotty family, in Chapter 3, treat him with respect, "as a visitor of distinction"; even at Murdstone and Grinby, his behaviour and clothes earned him the title of "the little gentleman". When he reached adulthood, he naturally enjoyed Steerforth's disdain for Ham as a simple "joke about the poor". So he is predisposed to succumb, by what he calls in chapter 7 an "inborn power of attraction", to the charm instinctively lent to beautiful people, about which David said "a kind of enchantment ... to which it was a natural weakness to yield." From start to finish, David remains fascinated by Steerforth, so he aspires inwardly to his social status. [101]

In parallel there is a contempt of the upstart, Heep, hatred of the same nature as Copperfield's senseless adoration for Steerforth, but inverted. That "'umble" Heep goes from a lowly clerk to an associate at Wickfield's, to claiming to win the hand of Agnes, daughter of his boss, is intolerable to David, though it is very similar to his own efforts to go from shorthand clerk to literary fame, with Dora Spenlow, the daughter of his employer. [102] Heep's innuendo that Copperfield is no better than him feeds on the disdain in which he holds Heep as of right: "Copperfield, you've always been an upstart", [103] an honesty of speech, comments Cordery, of which Copperfield himself is incapable. [102]


Another concern of Dickens is the institution of marriage and in particular, the unenviable place occupied by women. Whether at the home of Wickfield, Strong, or under the Peggotty boat, women are vulnerable to predators or intruders like Uriah Heep, Jack Maldon, James Steerforth; Murdstone's firmness prevails up to the death of two wives; with David and Dora complete incompetence reigns; and at the Micawber household, love and chaos go hand in hand; while Aunt Betsey is subjected to blackmail by her mysterious husband. Dickens, according to Gareth Cordery, clearly attacks the official status of marriage, which perpetuated an inequality between the sexes, an injustice that does not end with the separation of couples. [97]

The mid-Victorian era saw a change in gender roles for men and women, in part forced by the factories and separation of work and home, which made stereotypes of the woman at home and the man working away from home. [104] Values, like the imperative need for women to marry and to be that ideal described as The Angel in the House (manages the home without aid and is always calm) are "interrogated, tested and even subverted", [105] for example by having one mother-figure be the character Betsey Trotwood, who is not a mother. [106] When seeming to describe a stereotypical image in particularly the female characters, the story "does so in a way that reflects the fault-lines of the image." [107]

Anne Brontë in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) explores this iniquity in the status of the character Helen Graham, separated from her alcoholic husband. Dickens's understanding of the burden on women in marriage in this novel contrasts with his treatment of his own wife Catherine, whom he expected to be an Angel in the House. [107]

The fallen woman

The Awakening Conscience, William Holman Hunt (1851-1853) The awakening conscience, William Holman Hunt (1851-1853).jpg
The Awakening Conscience , William Holman Hunt (1851–1853)

Martha Endell and Emily Peggotty, the two friends in Yarmouth who work at the undertaker's house, reflect Dickens's commitment to "save" so-called fallen women. Dickens was co-founder with Angela Burdett-Coutts of Urania Cottage, a home for young women who had "turned to a life of immorality", including theft and prostitution. [108] On the eve of her wedding to her cousin and fiancé, Ham, Emily abandons him for Steerforth. After Steerforth deserts her, she doesn't go back home, because she has disgraced herself and her family. Her uncle, Mr Peggotty, finds her in London on the brink of being forced into prostitution. So that she may have a fresh start away from her now degraded reputation, she and her uncle emigrate to Australia. Martha has been a prostitute and contemplated suicide but towards the end of the novel, she redeems herself by helping Daniel Peggotty find his niece after she returns to London. She goes with Emily to start a new life in Australia. There, she marries and lives happily.

Their emigration to Australia, in the wake of that of Micawber, Daniel Peggotty, and Mr Mell, emphasizes Dickens's belief that social and moral redemption can be achieved in a distant place, where someone may create a new and healthy life. [109] However, despite their families' forgiveness, they remain "tainted" and their expulsion from England is symbolic of their status: it is only at the other end of the world that these "social outcasts" can be reinstated. Morally, Dickens here conforms to the dominant middle-class opinion.

The exception of Rosa Dartle

John O. Jordan devotes two pages to this woman, also "lost", though never having sinned. [110] The sanctification of the Victorian home, he says, depends on the opposition between two stereotypes, the "angel" and the "whore". Dickens denounced this restrictive dichotomy by portraying women "in between". Such is Rosa Dartle, passionate being, with the inextinguishable resentment of having been betrayed by Steerforth, a wound that is symbolised by the vibrant scar on her lip. Never does she allow herself to be assimilated by the dominant morality, refusing tooth and nail to put on the habit of the ideal woman. Avenger to the end, she wants the death of Little Emily, both the new conquest and victim of the same predator, and has only contempt for the efforts of David to minimize the scope of his words. As virtuous as anyone else, she claims, especially that Emily, she does not recognize any ideal family, each being molded in the manner of its social class, nor any affiliation as a woman: she is Rosa Dartle, in herself. [111]

David's vision, on the other hand, is marked by class consciousness: for him, Rosa, emaciated and ardent at the same time, as if there were incompatibility (chapter 20), is a being apart, half human, half animal, like the lynx, with its inquisitive forehead, always on the look out (chapter 29), which consumes an inner fire reflected in the gaunt eyes of the dead of which only this flame remains (chapter 20). In reality, says Jordan, it is impossible for David to understand or even imagine any sexual tension, especially that which governs the relationship between Rosa and Steerforth, which, in a way, reassures his own innocence and protects what he calls his "candor" – frankness or angelism? – his story. Also, Rosa Dartle's irreducible and angry marginality represents a mysterious threat to his comfortable and reassuring domestic ideology. [112]

Dickens's way of writing

Tom Jones was an important influence on Dickens TomJonesTitle.png
Tom Jones was an important influence on Dickens

Dickens's approach to the novel is influenced by various literary genres, including the picaresque novel tradition, [113] melodrama, [114] and the novel of sensibility. [115] Satire and irony are central to the picaresque novel. [116] Comedy is also an aspect of the British picaresque novel tradition of Laurence Sterne, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett. Fielding's Tom Jones [117] [118] was a major influence on the nineteenth century novel including Dickens, who read it in his youth, [119] and named a son Henry Fielding Dickens in his honour. [120] [121] Melodrama is typically sensational and designed to appeal strongly to the emotions.

Trevor Blount comments on the fascination that Dickens has always exercised on the public. He mentions the lavishness, energy, vividness, brilliance, and tenderness of Dickens's writing, along with the range of his imagination. Blount also refers to Dickens's humour, and his use of the macabre and of pathos. Finally, Blount celebrates the artistic mastery of an overflowing spontaneity, which is conveyed with both delicacy and subtlety. [122] What Blount admires, in the first place, is the vigour with which the characters "rise" from the page and create a "phantasmagorical" universe, which is seen by the reader with the intensity of an hallucination. This is best illustrated in many of Dickens's works, by the powerful figure of a weak individual. In David Copperfield Mr Wilkins Micawber is such a figure, someone who is formidably incompetent, grandiose in his irreducible optimism, sumptuous in his verbal virtuosity, and whose grandiloquent tenderness is irresistibly comical. [123] Micawber has been described as "With the one exception of Falstaff, ... the greatest comic figure in English literature". [124]

In this novel, one characteristic noted by Edgar Johnson is that Dickens, in the first part, "makes the reader see with the eyes of a child", [125] an innovative technique for the time, first tried in Dombey and Son with an omniscient narrator, and carried here to perfection through the use of the 'I'.

Modernist novelist Virginia Woolf writes, that when we read Dickens "we remodel our psychological geography ... [as he produces] characters who exist not in detail, not accurately or exactly, but abundantly in a cluster of wild yet extraordinarily revealing remarks". [126]

Satire and pathos

The very principle of satire is to question, and to tear off the masks, so as to reveal the raw reality under the varnish. [127] Dickens use the whole arsenal of literary tools that are available to the satirist, or rather supplied by his narrator, David, who even directs satire upon himself. These tools include irony, humour, and caricature. How it is employed relates to the characters' differing personalities. Satire is thus gentler towards some characters than others; toward David the hero-narrator, it is at once indulgent and transparent.

Types of character

Uriah Heep at his desk, by Fred Barnard Fred Barnard07.jpg
Uriah Heep at his desk, by Fred Barnard

There are several different types of character: On the one hand, there are the good ones, Peggotty, Dr Strong, Traddles, Agnes etc., on the other hand, there are the bad ones, Murdstone, Steerforth, Uriah Heep, etc. A third category are characters who change over time, including Betsey Trotwood, who at first is more obstinate than nasty, it is true, and Martha Endell, and Creakle, etc. There is also a contrast drawn between ever-frozen personalities such as Micawber, Dora, Rosa Dartle, and those who evolve. The latter includes David, Mr Mell, Miss Mowcher. There is also a contrast drawn between the idiosyncrasies of Mr Dick, Barkis, Mrs Gummidge, and the subtle metamorphosis from innocence to maturity of characters like David, Traddles, Agnes.

Dickens worked intensively on developing arresting names for his characters that would reverberate with associations for his readers, and assist the development of motifs in the storyline, giving what one critic calls an "allegorical impetus" to a novel's meanings. [128] The name Mr Murdstone in David Copperfield conjures up twin allusions to "murder" and stony coldness; [129] Strong is definitely not "strong"; Creakle "squeaks and grinds". There can also be a visual dimension to Dickens's humour. This includes Micawber's rotundity, his wife's dried-up body, which forever offers a sterile breast, Betsey's steadfast stiffness, Mr Sharp's bowed head, Daniel Peggotty's stubborn rudeness, Clara Copperfield's delicate silhouette, and Dora's mischievous air. Then there are exaggerated attitudes that are constantly repeated. Dickens creates humour out of character traits, such as Mr Dick's kite flying, James Steerforth's insistent charm, Uriah Heep's obsequiousness, Betsey pounding David's room. There are in addition the employment of repetitive verbal phrases: "umble" of the same Heep, the "willin" of Barkis, the "lone lorn creetur" of Mrs Gummidge. Dickens also uses objects for a humorous purpose, like Traddles's skeletons, the secret box of Barkis, the image of Heep as a snake, and the metallic rigidity of Murdstone.

Pathos and indulgent humour

Steerforth and Mr Mell, by Phiz. David Copperfield, Steerforth and Mr Mell.jpg
Steerforth and Mr Mell, by Phiz.

In David Copperfield idealised characters and highly sentimental scenes are contrasted with caricatures and ugly social truths. While good characters are also satirised, a considered sentimentality replaces satirical ferocity. This is a characteristic of all of Dickens's writing, but it is reinforced in David Copperfield by the fact that these people are the narrator's close family members and friends, who are devoted to David and sacrificing themselves for his happiness. Hence the indulgence applied from the outset, with humour prevailing along with loving complicity. David is the first to receive such treatment, especially in the section devoted to his early childhood, when he is lost in the depths of loneliness in London, following his punishment by Mr Murdstone. Michael Hollington analyses a scene in chapter 11 that seems emblematic of the situation and how humour and sentimentality are employed by Dickens. [130] This is the episode where the very young David orders a pitcher of the best beer in a public house, "To moisten what I had for dinner". [131] David's memory has retained the image of the scene, which is so vivid that he sees himself as from the outside. He has forgotten the exact date (his birthday). This episode release David's emotional pain, writes Michael Hollington, obliterating the infected part of the wound. Beyond the admiration aroused for the amazing self-confidence of the little child, in resolving this issue and taking control of his life with the assurance of someone much older, the passage "testifies to the work of memory, transfiguring the moment into a true myth". [130] The tone is nostalgic because, ultimately, the epilogue is a true moment of grace. The wife of the keeper, returning David's money, deposits on his forehead a gift that has become extremely rare, [132] a kiss, "Half admired and half compassionate", but above all full of kindness and femininity; at least, adds David, as a tender and precious reminder, "I am sure".


Dickens went to the theatre regularly from an early age and even considered becoming an actor in 1832. [133] "Many of the plays that he saw on the London stage in the 1820s and 1830s were melodramas". [134] There is a visual, theatrical—even cinematic—element in some scenes in David Copperfield. The cry of Martha at the edge of the river belongs to the purest Victorian melodrama, as does the confrontation between Mr Peggotty and Mrs Steerforth, in chapter 32:

I justify nothing, I make no counter-accusations. But I am sorry to repeat, it is impossible. Such a marriage would irretrievably blight my son's career, and ruin his prospects. Nothing is more certain than that, it never can take place, and never will. If there is any other compensation. [135]

Such language, according to Trevor Blount, is meant to be said aloud. Many other scenes employ the same method: Micawber crossing the threshold, Heep harassing David in Chapter 17, the chilling apparition of Littimer in the middle of David's party in Chapter 27. The climax of this splendid series of scenes is the storm off Yarmouth, which is an epilogue to the menacing references to the sea previously, which shows Dicken's most intense virtuosity (chapter 55).

Dickens made the following comment in 1858: "Every good actor plays direct to every good author, and every writer of fiction, though he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage". [136]


Setting is a major aspect of Dickens's "narrative artistry and of his methods of characterization", so that "the most memorable quality of his novels may well be their atmospheric density [... of the] descriptive writing". [137]

In David Copperfield setting is less urban, more rustic than in other novels, and especially maritime. Besides Peggotty, who is a seaman whose home is an overturned hull, Mr Micawber goes to the naval port of Plymouth on the south coast after prison and appears finally on board a steamer. David himself is connected to Yarmouth, and Aunt Betsey settled in the Channel port of Dover. Young David notices the sea on his first day at her home; "the air from the sea came blowing in again, mixed with the perfume of the flowers". [138] The city, London, is especially the place of misfortune, where the dark warehouse of Murdstone and Grinby are found. The philosopher Alain (pseudonym of Émile-Auguste Chartier) comments as follows about Dickens's portrayal of London (but it might also be applied to other locations), as cited by Lançon:

The Dickensian atmosphere, unlike any other, comes from the way the distinctive nature of a dwelling is linked to the personality of its inhabitant [...] [There is there] a look that creates a sense of reality, with the remarkable connection between buildings and characters. [139]


Important symbols include, imprisonment, the sea, flowers, animals, dreams, and Mr Dick's kite. [140] According to Henri Suhamy, "Dickens's symbolism consists in giving significance to physical details ... The constant repetition of these details ... contributes to deepen their emblematic significance". [141] This may include the characters, aspects of the story, and, more prominently amongst the motifs, places or objects.

Yarmouth, Norfolk, engraving by William Miller after Turner Yarmouth engraving by William Miller after Turner.jpg
Yarmouth, Norfolk, engraving by William Miller after Turner

Separating realism and symbolism can be tricky, especially, for example, when it relates, to the subject of imprisonment, which is both a very real place of confinement for the Micawber family, and, more generally throughout David Copperfield, symbolic of the damage inflicted on a sick society, trapped in its inability to adapt or compromise, with many individuals walled within in themselves. [142]

The imponderable power of the sea is almost always associated with death: it took Emily's father; will take Ham and Steerforth, and in general is tied to David's "unrest" associated with his Yarmouth experiences. [143] In the end nothing remains but Steerforth's body cast-up as "flotsam and jetsam, that symbolises the moral emptiness of David's adoration. The violent storm in Yarmouth coincides with the moment when the conflicts reached a critical threshold, when it is as if angry Nature called for a final resolution; as Kearney noted, "The rest of the novel is something of an anti-climax after the storm chapter." [143] [144] Referring to the climactic storm scene in David Copperfield, the last in any Dickens novel, Kearney remarked that "The symbolism of sea, sky and storm is successfully integrated to achieve what amounts to a mystical dimension in the novel, and this mystical dimension is, on the whole, more acceptable than the ones found elsewhere in Dickens". [145]

According to Daniel L Plung, four types of animal are a particularly important aspect of the way symbolism is used: song birds symbolise innocence; "lions and raptors [are] associated with the fallen but not evil"; dogs, other than Jip, are associated "with the malicious and self-interested"; while snakes and eel represent evil. [146] A typical example of the way that animal symbolism is used is found in the following sentence: " 'the influence of the Murdstones upon me [David] was like the fascination of two snakes on a wretched young bird" '. [147] When David describes Steerforth as "brave as a lion" this is a clue to Steerforth's moral weakness and foreshadows subsequent events. [148]

Flowers symbolise innocence, for example, David is called "Daisy" by Steerforth, because he is naive and pure, while Dora constantly paints bouquets, and when Heep was removed from Wickfield House, flowers return to the living room. Mr Dick's kite, represents how much he is both outside and above society, immune to its hierarchical social system. Furthermore, it flies among the innocent birds, [149] and just as this toy soothes and gives joy to him, Mr Dick heals the wounds and restore peace where the others without exception have failed.

Dreams are also an important part of the novel's underlying symbolic structure, and are "used as a transitional device to bind [its] parts together" with twelve chapters ending "with a dream or reverie". [150] In the early dark period of David's life his dreams "are invariably ugly", but in later chapters they are more mixed, with some reflecting "fanciful hopes" that are never realised, while others are nightmares which foreshadow "actual problems". [150]

In addition physical beauty, in the form of Clara, is emblematic of moral good, while the ugliness of Uriah Heep, Mr Creakle and Mr Murdstone underlines their villainy. While David, the story's hero, has benefited from her love and suffered from the violence of the others.


Dickens, in preparation for this novel, went to Norwich, Lowestoft, and Yarmouth where the Peggotty family resides, but he stayed there for only five hours, on 9 January 1849. He assured his friends, that his descriptions were based on his own memories, brief as were his local experiences. However, looking to the work of K. J. Fielding [151] reveals that the dialect of this town was taken from a book written by a local author, Major Edward Moor published in 1823. [152] There, Dickens found a beein (a house), fisherate (officiate), dodman (snail), clickesen (gossip), and winnicking (tears) from winnick (to cry) and so on. [153]

Literary significance and reception

Many view this novel as Dickens's masterpiece, beginning with his friend and first biographer John Forster, who writes: "Dickens never stood so high in reputation as at the completion of Copperfield", [154] and the author himself calls it "his favourite child". [155] [N 10] It is true, he says, that "underneath the fiction lay something of the author's life", [156] that is, an experience of self-writing. It is therefore not surprising that the book is often placed in the category of autobiographical works. From a strictly literary point of view, however, it goes beyond this framework in the richness of its themes and the originality of its writing.

Situated in the middle of Dickens's career, it represents, according to Paul Davis, a turning point in his work, the point of separation between the novels of youth and those of maturity. [157] In 1850, Dickens was 38 years old and had twenty more to live, which he filled with other masterpieces, often denser, sometimes darker, that addressed most of the political, social and personal issues he faced.

"The privileged child" of Dickens

Dickens welcomed the publication of his work with intense emotion, and he continued to experience this until the end of his life. When he went through a period of personal difficulty and frustration in the 1850s, he returned to David Copperfield as to a dear friend who resembled him: "Why," he wrote to Forster, "Why is it, as with poor David, a sense comes always crashing on me now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made?" [158] [N 11] When Dickens begins writing Great Expectations , which was also written in the first person, he reread David Copperfield and confided his feelings to Forster: "was affected by it to a degree you would hardly believe". [159] Criticism has not always been even-handed, though over time the high importance of this novel has been recognised.

Initial reception

Although Dickens became a Victorian celebrity his readership was mainly the middle classes, including the so-called skilled workers, according to the French critic Fabrice Bensimon, because ordinary people could not afford it. [160] Issues I to V of the serial version reached 25,000 copies in two years, modest sales compared to 32,000 Dombey and Son and 35,000 Bleak House, but Dickens was nevertheless happy: "Everyone is cheering David on", he writes to Mrs Watson, [161] and, according to Forster, his reputation was at the top. [154]

The first reviews were mixed, [162] but the great contemporaries of Dickens showed their approval: Thackeray found the novel "freshly and simply simple"; [163] John Ruskin, in his Modern Painters , was of the opinion that the scene of the storm surpasses Turner's evocations of the sea; more soberly, Matthew Arnold declared it "rich in merits"; [24] and, in his autobiographical book A Small Boy and Others , Henry James evokes the memory of "treasure so hoarded in the dusty chamber of youth". [164]

Subsequent reputation

Falstaff (Adolf Schrodter, 1867), to whom J. B. Priestley compares Mr Micawber. Adolf Schrodter Falstaff und sein Page.jpg
Falstaff (Adolf Schrödter, 1867), to whom J. B. Priestley compares Mr Micawber.

After Dickens's death, David Copperfield rose to the forefront of the writer's works, both through sales, for example, in Household Words in 1872 where sales reached 83,000, [165] and the praise of critics. In 1871, Scottish novelist and poet Margaret Oliphant described it as "the culmination of Dickens's early comic fiction"; [166] However, in the late nineteenth-century Dickens's critical reputation suffered a decline, though he continued to have many readers. This began when Henry James in 1865 "relegated Dickens to the second division of literature on the grounds that he could not 'see beneath the surface of things'". Then in 1872, two years after Dickens's death, George Henry Lewes wondered how to "reconcile [Dickens's] immense popularity with the 'critical contempt' which he attracted". [167] However, Dickens was defended by the novelist George Gissing in 1898 in Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. [167] G. K. Chesterton published an important defence of Dickens in his book Charles Dickens in 1906, where he describes him as this "most English of our great writers". [168] Dickens's literary reputation grew in the 1940s and 1950s because of essays by George Orwell and Edmund Wilson (both published in 1940), and Humphrey House's The Dickens World (1941). [169] However, in 1948, F. R. Leavis in The Great Tradition , contentiously, excluded Dickens from his canon, characterising him as a "popular entertainer" [170] without "mature standards and interests". [171]

Wilkins Micawber by Frank Reynolds, per Maugham "he never fails you." Wilkins Micawber from David Copperfield by Frank Reynolds.jpg
Wilkins Micawber by Frank Reynolds, per Maugham "he never fails you."

Dickens's reputation, however, continued to grow and K. J. Fielding (1965) and Geoffrey Thurley (1976) identify what they call David Copperfield's "centrality", and Q. D. Leavis in 1970, looked at the images he draws of marriage, of women, and of moral simplicity. [172] In their 1970 publication Dickens the Novelist, F. R. and Q. D. Leavis called Dickens "one of the greatest of creative writers", and F. R. Leavis had changed his mind about Dickens since his 1948 work, no longer finding the popularity of the novels with readers as a barrier to their seriousness or profundity. [173] In 1968 Sylvère Monod, after having finely analyzed the structure and style of the novel, describe it as "the triumph of the art of Dickens", [6] which analysis was shared by Paul B. Davis. [7] The central themes are explored by Richard Dunne in 1981, including the autobiographical dimension, the narrator-hero characterization process, memory and forgetting, and finally the privileged status of the novel in the interconnection between similar works of Dickens. [172] Q. D. Leavis compares Copperfield to Tolstoy's War and Peace and looks at adult-child relationships in both novels. According to writer Paul B. Davis, Q. D. Leavis excels at dissecting David's relationship with Dora. [7] Gwendolyn Needham in an essay, published in 1954, analyzes the novel as a bildungsroman, as did Jerome H. Buckley twenty years later. [7] In 1987 Alexander Welsh devoted several chapters to show that Copperfield is the culmination of Dickens's autobiographical attempts to explore himself as a novelist in the middle of his career. Finally, J. B. Priestley was particularly interested in Mr Micawber and concludes that "With the one exception of Falstaff, he is the greatest comic figure in English literature". [124]

In 2015, the BBC Culture section polled book critics outside the UK about novels by British authors; they ranked David Copperfield eighth on the list of the 100 Greatest British Novels. [174] The characters and their varied places in society in the novel evoked reviewer comments, for example, the novel is "populated by some of the most vivid characters ever created," "David himself, Steerforth, Peggotty, Mr Dick – and it climbs up and down and off the class ladder.", remarked by critic Maureen Corrigan and echoed by Wendy Lesser. [175]

Opinions of other writers

David Copperfield has pleased many writers. Charlotte Brontë, for example, commented in 1849 in a letter to the reader of her publisher: "I have read David Copperfield; it seems to me very good—admirable in some parts. You said it had affinity to Jane Eyre : it has—now and then—only what an advantage has Dickens in his varied knowledge of men and things!" [176] Tolstoy, for his part, considered it "the best work of the best English novelist" and, according to F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis, was inspired by David and Dora's love story to have Prince Andrew marry Princess Lise in War and Peace. [177] Henry James remembered being moved to tears, while listening to the novel, hidden under a table, read aloud in the family circle. [178] Dostoevsky enthusiastically cultivated the novel in a prison camp in Siberia. [179] Franz Kafka wrote in his diary in 1917, that the first chapter of his novel Amerika was inspired by David Copperfield. [180] [181] [182] [N 12] James Joyce parodied it in Ulysses . [183] Virginia Woolf, who was not very fond of Dickens, states that David Copperfield, along with Robinson Crusoe , Grimm's fairy tales, Scott's Waverley and Pickwick's Posthumous Papers , "are not books, but stories communicated by word of mouth in those tender years when fact and fiction merge, and thus belong to the memories and myths of life, and not to its esthetic experience." [184] Woolf also noted in a letter to Hugh Walpole in 1936, that she is re-reading it for the sixth time: "I'd forgotten how magnificent it is." [185] It also seems that the novel was Sigmund Freud's favourite; [186] [187] and Somerset Maugham sees it as a "great" work, although his hero seems to him rather weak, unworthy even of its author, while Mr Micawber never disappoints: "The most remarkable of them is, of course, Mr Micawber. He never fails you." [188]


Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), illustrator Hablot-browne.jpg
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), illustrator
The Peggotty family house depicted by Phiz Peggotty family house, David Copperfield.jpg
The Peggotty family house depicted by Phiz

As is the custom for a regular serialised publication for a wide audience, David Copperfield, like Dickens's earlier novels, was from the beginning a "story in pictures" whose many engravings are part of the novel and how the story is related.

Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz)

Phiz drew the original, the first two illustrations associated with David Copperfield: on the wrapper for the serial publication, for which he engraved the silhouette of a baby staring at a globe, probably referring to the working title (The Copperfield Survey of the World as it Rolled), and the frontispiece (later used in the published books), and the title page. The green wrapper is shown at the top of this article. Phiz drew the images around the central baby-over-the-globe with no information on the characters who would appear in the novel. He knew only that it would be a bildungsroman. [189] The images begin at the bottom, on the left side of the tree that has leaves on the left, and is dead on the right. A woman holds a baby on her lap. The images continue clockwise, marking events of a life, but with no reference to any specific event or specific character of the novel. [189] [190]

When each issue was written, Phiz then worked with Dickens on the illustrations. "In the monthly plates, Phiz would have to translate the memories of the protagonist-narrator into a third-person objective or dramatic point of view." [189] Some of his illustrations contain details that are not in the text, but illuminate a character or situation, "forming part of [...] of what the novel is". [191] Dickens accepted and even encouraged these additional, sometimes subtle indications, which, commenting on the event, say more than the narrator says in print. The latter intends to stay behind, just like the author who, thus, hides behind the illustrator.

Dickens was particularly scrupulous about illustrations; he scrutinised the smallest details and sometimes demanded modifications, for example to replace for a very particular episode the coat that David wears by "a little jacket". [192] The illustration of the meeting between David and Aunt Betsey was particularly delicate, and Phiz had to do it several times, the ultimate choice being that of Dickens. [19] Once the desired result was obtained, Dickens does not hide his satisfaction: the illustrations are "capital", he writes to Phiz, and especially that which depicts Mr Micawber in chapter 16, "uncommonly characteristic". [193]

One puzzling mismatch between the text and accompanying illustrations is that of the Peggotty family's boat-house "cottage" on the Yarmouth sands (pictured). It is clear from the text that the author envisaged the house as an upright boat, whereas the illustrator depicted it as an upturned hull resting on the beach with holes cut for the doors and windows. Interior illustrations of the cottage also show it as a room with curved ceiling beams implying an upturned hull. Although Dickens seemed to have had the opportunity to correct this discrepancy he never did, suggesting that he was happy with the illustrator's depiction. [194]

Other illustrators

Barkis takes David to Yarmouth (Harold Copping) Barkis conduit David a Yarmouth (Harold Copping).jpeg
Barkis takes David to Yarmouth (Harold Copping)
Daniel Peggotty by Frank Reynolds Daniel Peggotty from David Copperfield.jpg
Daniel Peggotty by Frank Reynolds
Peggotty and David, by Jessie Willcox-Smith Peggotty et David, par Jessie Willcox-Smith.jpeg
Peggotty and David, by Jessie Willcox-Smith
Micawber by "Kyd" Clarke-micawber.jpg
Micawber by "Kyd"

David Copperfield was later illustrated by many artists later, after the serialization, including:

Some of these works are fullsize paintings rather than illustrations included in editions of the novels. [197] Kyd painted watercolours. Frank Reynolds provided the illustrations for a 1911 edition of David Copperfield. [198]

Although the reputation of Dickens with literary critics went through a decline and a much later rise after he died, [199] his popularity with readers followed a different pattern after his death. Around 1900, his novels, including David Copperfield, began an increase in popularity, and the 40-year copyrights expired for all but his latest novels, opening the door to other publishers in the UK; by 1910 all of them had expired. [200] This created the opportunity for new illustrators in new editions of the novels, as both Fred Barnard (Household Edition) and Frank Reynolds (1911 edition of David Copperfield) provided, for example; their styles were different from that of Phiz who provided the illustrations for the first publications of the novel in 1850 and during the author's life. As the books were read by so many (one publisher, Chapman & Hall, sold 2 million copies of Dickens's works in the period 1900–1906), [200] the characters became more popular for use outside the novels, in jigsaw puzzles and postcards. Uriah Heep and Mr Micawber were popular figures for illustrations. As World War I approached, the illustrations on postcards and the novels, abridged or full length, continued in popularity in the UK and among the soldiers and sailors abroad. [200]

Major print editions of David Copperfield

Publishing contract

Like Dombey and Son , David Copperfield was not the subject of a specific contract; it followed the agreement of 1 June 1844, which was still valid. In that contract, the publishing house Bradbury and Evans received a quarter of the receipts from what Dickens wrote for the next eight years. This did not prevent the novelist from criticizing his publisher, or providing an incomplete number, just "to see exactly where I am" and for his illustrator Phiz to have "some material to work on". [201]

Dedication and preface

The 1850 book, published by Bradbury and Evans, was dedicated to the honorable Mr and Mrs Richard Watson, from Rockingham, Northamptonshire, aristocratic friends met on a trip to Switzerland five years ago. [202] A brief preface was written in 1850 by the author, already entrusted to Forster after he finished his manuscript, with the promise that a new work will follow. This text was also used for the 1859 edition, the Cheap Edition. The ultimate version of 1867, also called the Charles Dickens edition, included another preface by the author with the statement that David Copperfield is the favourite work of the author.

Other editions

Three volumes were published by Tauchnitz in 1849–50, in English, for distribution outside Great Britain in Europe. During Dickens's lifetime, many other editions were released, and many since he died. According to Paul Schlicke, the most reliable edition is the 1981 edition from Clarendon Press with an introduction and notes by Nina Burgis; it serves as a reference for later editions, including those of Collins, Penguin Books and Wordsworth Classics. [10]

List of editions


Earliest adaptations

While it was being published, David Copperfield was the object, according to Philip Bolton's survey, of six initial dramatisations, followed by a further twenty when the public's interest was at its peak in the 1850s. [203] The first adaptation, Born with a Caul by George Almar, was staged while the serial issues were not yet completed, with some changes from Dickens's plot, having Steerforth live and marry Emily, and inventing a character to kill Mr Murdstone. [204] The most spectacular dramatisation, however, were those of Dickens himself. Although he waited more than ten years to prepare a version for his public readings, it soon became one of his favourite performances, especially the storm scene, which he kept for the finale, "the most sublime moment in all the readings". [205]



Film and TV

David Copperfield has been filmed on several occasions:

David Copperfield (1935) David Copperfield lobby card.jpg
David Copperfield (1935)

See also


  1. Dickens invented over 14 variations of the title for this work, see Adams, Hazard (Autumn 1987). "Titles, Titling, and Entitlement to". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 46 (1): 7–21. doi:10.2307/431304. JSTOR   431304.
  2. Actually Wordsworth began writing this work in 1798–99.
  3. Charles I was born into the House of Stuart 19 November 1600, and was King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625 to 1649. Charles I was deposed during the English Civil War, and was beheaded, with the monarchy replaced by the Commonwealth of England. Charles was canonized by the Church of England in 1660.
  4. For example, those of Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones written by Henry Fielding, Dickens's favorite past author.
  5. A Rookery is a colony of birds, usually rooks. The term "rookery" was also used as a name for dense slum housing in nineteenth-century cities, especially in London.
  6. The expression is from St Augustine who uses it at the end of the first part of his Confessions .
  7. Word play containing the verb "brook", meaning "endure," and the town of "Sheffield," famous for the manufacture of cutlery. Hence Mr Murdstone's joke, "take care, if you please. Somebody's sharp".
  8. The connotations of the first name "Clara" are clarity, transparency, brightness.
  9. Dickens ridiculed the way it worked, lamenting that detainees were better treated than the poor or even non-commissioned soldiers.
  10. Conclusion of the preface of 1867: "Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."
  11. It is likely here that Dickens refers to the failure of his marriage with his wife.
  12. Kafka's novel is a kind of inverted bildungsroman, since the young man whose destiny we follow is more of a disaster than an accomplishment.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Uriah Heep (character)</span> Fictional character created by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield

Uriah Heep is a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in his 1850 novel David Copperfield. Heep is the primary antagonist during the second part of the novel. His character is notable for his sycophancy.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1935 film) 1935 film by George Cukor

David Copperfield is a 1935 American film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer based upon Charles Dickens' 1850 novel The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">James Steerforth</span> Fictional character

James Steerforth is a character in the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. He is a handsome young man noted for his wit and romantic charm. Though he is well liked by his friends, he proves himself to be condescending and lacking in consideration for others.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">David Copperfield (character)</span> Fictional character created by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is the protagonist after which the 1850 Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield was named. The character is widely thought to be based on Dickens himself, incorporating many elements of his own life.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (2000 film) 2000 American-Irish drama film

David Copperfield is a 2000 American-Irish made-for-television film adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1850 novel of the same name. It was filmed in Ireland, and broadcast on TNT as a Hallmark Entertainment production on 10–11 December 2000.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1999 film) 1999 British television drama

David Copperfield is a two-part BBC television drama adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1850 novel of the same name, written by Adrian Hodges. The first part was shown on Christmas Day 1999 and the second part the following day.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1969 film) 1969 British-American drama film

David Copperfield is a 1969 British-American international co-production television film directed by Delbert Mann based on the 1850 novel of the same name by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jack Pulman. The film was released in the UK in 1970. It stars Robin Phillips in the title role and Ralph Richardson as Micawber, and features well-known actors Richard Attenborough, Laurence Olivier, Susan Hampshire, Cyril Cusack, Wendy Hiller, Edith Evans, Michael Redgrave and Ron Moody.

David Copperfield is a 1993 Canadian traditionally animated film adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic 1850 novel of the same name. Produced for and premiered on NBC, the film is directed by Don Arioli and features the voices of Sheena Easton, Julian Lennon, Howie Mandel, Andrea Martin, Kelly Le Brock, Michael York and Joseph Marcell.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Betsey Trotwood</span> Fictional character

Betsey Trotwood is a fictional character from Charles Dickens' 1850 novel David Copperfield.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Edward Murdstone</span> Fictional character

Edward Murdstone is a fictional character and the primary antagonist in the first part of the Charles Dickens 1850 novel David Copperfield, secondary to Uriah Heep in the second part.

Copperfield is a 1981 musical with a book, music, and lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, who were nominated for the 1981 Tony Award for Best Original Score. It is based on the classic 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

Peggotty is the name of a character and family in Charles Dickens's 1850 novel David Copperfield.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1974 TV serial)

David Copperfield is a British six-part television serial of the 1850 novel by Charles Dickens adapted by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Joan Craft and first shown on BBC 1 in weekly parts from 1 December 1974 to 5 January 1975. It was a co-production with Time-Life Television Productions. It is the earliest BBC adaptation to exist in its entirety. The 1956 adaptation is completely lost, whilst only four of the 1966 adaptation's episodes are known to exist.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1913 film) 1913 British film

David Copperfield is a 1913 British black-and-white silent film based on the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It is the second-oldest known film adaptation of the novel. Running six reels, it is significant as a very early British feature film at a moment when the world film industry was beginning its move away from traditional short films towards longer and more ambitious works.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1966 TV serial) British TV series or programme

David Copperfield is a BBC television serial starring Ian McKellen in the title role of the adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1850 novel that began airing in January 1966. It also featured Tina Packer as Dora Flora Robson as Betsey Trotwood, Gordon Gostelow as Barkis, and Christopher Guard as young David. The screenplay adaptation was written by Vincent Tilsley, who had previously helmed the 1956 adaptation almost a decade prior.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1986 TV serial) British TV series or programme

David Copperfield is a 10 episode BBC serial broadcast between 19 October and 21 December 1986 and based on the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. The series was written by James Andrew Hall and directed by Barry Letts. It was produced by Terrance Dicks.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Agnes Wickfield</span> Fictional character

Agnes Wickfield is a character of David Copperfield, the 1850 novel by Charles Dickens. She is a friend and confidante of David since his childhood and at the end of the novel, his second wife. In Dickens' language, she is the "real heroine" of the novel.

<i>The Personal History of David Copperfield</i> 2019 film directed by Armando Iannucci

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a 2019 comedy-drama film written and directed by Armando Iannucci, based on the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It stars Dev Patel as the title character, along with Aneurin Barnard, Peter Capaldi, Morfydd Clark, Daisy May Cooper, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw and Paul Whitehouse.

<i>David Copperfield</i> (1956 TV serial) British TV series or programme

David Copperfield is a 1956 BBC TV adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1850 novel, serialised in 13 episodes. No recordings of this production are known to exist.

<i>Demon Copperhead</i> 2022 novel by Barbara Kingsolver

Demon Copperhead is a 2022 novel by Barbara Kingsolver. It was a co-recipient of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and won the 2023 Women's Prize for Fiction. Kingsolver was inspired by the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield. While Kingsolver's novel is similarly about a boy who experiences poverty, Demon Copperhead is set in Appalachia and explores contemporary issues.


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Letters written by Charles Dickens

Letters, cited by recipient and date in the References, are found in the Pilgrim edition, published in 12 volumes, from 1965 to 2003.

Online editions